Guide to Popular Mexican Food

21 Jun
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Guide to Popular Mexican Food

Monday June 21, 2021 - Posted by admin

If you’re visiting Mexico with a Spanish immersion program abroad – or otherwise – look out for these popular Mexican dishes to get a real taste of Mexican cuisine. In this article, we show you our pick of the top must-try popular Mexican food, including tacos, tortillas, guacamole, chilies,corn and so much more! Read our Guide to Popular Mexican Food.

More about Mexican Cuisine

First things first. Let us tell you about more about the amazing Mexican Cuisine.
Chances are you have had many opportunities to try “Mexican” food without ever having stepped foot in the country itself!

Mexican food and Mexican drinks is so popular that it can literally be found all around the world. But, thanks to fast food chains and the adaption of traditional Mexican dishes within other countries, there are so many misconceptions about authentic Mexican food.

Although traveling and learning Spanish in Mexico is the best way to get to know authentic Mexican cuisine, this blog is the next best thing to help you get started: a Guide to Popular Mexican Food.

Big variety Popular Mexican Food

Mexican food incredibly varied. Traditional Mexican dishes vary significantly from region to region, due to varying climates, traditions and the availability of ingredients. For example, costal areas have an abundance of seafood while the central highlands specialize in other types of protein. Each Mexican state has their own version of mole and even names of the same dish can differ across Mexico.

Learn Spanish and Mexican cuisine

Mexican Food History

One of the earliest influences on Mexican cuisine was that of the Maya who were nomadic hunters and gatherers. There food consisted of native animals like raccoons, deer, rabbits, armadillos, rattle snakes, iguanas, spider monkeys, turtles, frogs, pigeons, turkeys and insects. Tropical fruits, corn and beans were also an integral part of their diet.

In the mid 1300’s, the Aztec Empire was flourishing and while Mayan cuisine was still in use other ingredients made their way into the cuisine including honey, salt, chocolate and chili peppers. Wild game, such as turkey and duck, had also been domesticated at this time. Other common foods of Pre-Columbian Mexico included tomatoes, vanilla, avocado, papaya, pineapple, squash, sweet potato, peanuts and fish.

Then, in 1521 the Spanish invaded Mexico and left a huge mark on the Mexican cuisine, as we know it today. The Spanish introduced larger domesticated animals like sheep, cows and pigs. They brought dairy products, garlic, wheat, spices and many new herbs. During this time many other palates were introduced to the country from the Caribbean, South America, France, West Africa and Portugal.

When the Spanish arrived to the capital of the Aztec culture, Tenochtitlan, they saw that the main diet was made up of many corn-based dishes with chilies and herbs that were commonly accompanied by beans and tomatoes. At this point the soldiers combined their typical diet of rice, beef, pork, chicken, wine, garlic and onions with the native foods of pre-Columbian Mexico. The Spanish influence led to the emersion of many of the meat heavy dishes we think of today as well as the dishes with cheese.

When the French occupied Mexico, they introduced a wide variety of baked foods to the region. Mexican sweet breads and bolillo, are some examples of how the French influenced Mexican food, now recognized by the UNESCO.

Mexican cuisine & Corn

It’s impossible to write this Guide to Popular Mexican Food and think about Mexican food without one specific crop coming to mind – corn. There is a saying in Mexico: Sin maíz, no hay país. This Spanish phrase means that without corn there is no country.

You can find corn in almost every Mexican dish all over the country, whether that is through the corn tortilla, tamales, a rich and hearty corn stew called, pozole, and hundreds of other recipes. Not to mention the little roadside vendors who sell delicious snacks like elote.

Corn was domesticated in Mexico more than 8,700 years ago and it spread throughout ancient Mesoamerica. In the state of Puebla archeologists found cob fragments in a cave that were estimated to be between 7,000-5,500 years old. There is other evidence that shows that Mexicans cooked tortillas using comal (a griddle) in Mexico as early as 500 a.d.


Tortillas are a staple in Mexican cuisine. Traditional Mexican tortillas are made from hand-processed masa; very smooth dough made through a pre-Hispanic method called nixtamalization.

To make the dough, corn is boiled with an alkaline solution to help break down the exterior part of the kernel. The corn is then ground against wet stones inside a machine called a Molino. Although most tortillas these days are being made by machine, many people, especially in smaller towns are still making them by hand. If you get to see the process up close, you are in for a real treat!

Like most things in Mexico, you will find many variations of the tortilla across the country. In some areas where blue corn is grow, the tortillas will be a deep purple color, while in other regions the tortillas will be more yellow. If the tortillas are made by hand, you’ll notice that they are a bit thicker. Don’t forget that tortillas come in all sorts of sizes as well!

Popular Mexican Food : Mexican dishes you must try

1 – Huaraches

Huaraches are flattened ovals of masa that are shaped to resemble the sole of a Huarache (Mexican sandal). They can be served small for an appetizer or so large that they can resemble a pizza. Traditional huaraches are filled with beans and then fried until they are crisp. The selections of toppings are truly endless and you can choose from beans, cheese, rajas, salsa, nopales, carne asada, etc.

The Huarache Toluqueño is really like taking a bite into pre-Colombian Mexican cuisine, although they say the dish itself is not too old. The dish is made by pounding a large tostada of blue corn to give it a coarse texture and is covered with a mixture of beans, nopales and cilantro, maybe mixed with some tomatoes and avocado.

2 – Tacos

There is no way to write a Mexican food blog without mentioning tacos. The are part of the popular Mexican food. But, we are not going to talk about hard shell Tex-Mex tacos that are made with ground beef, cheese, lettuce and sour cream and a ready-to-go seasoning packet added in. We are going to talk about the huge variety of traditional Mexican tacos and how they are prepared.

Facts about Tacos!
  • Authentic Mexican tacos involve soft corn tortillas, not flour.
  • Authentic Mexican tacos are not topped with cheese, but are topped with fresh cilantro and finely diced white onion.
  • Authentic tacos are made of stewed, fried or grilled meat. The grilled meat is often marinated overnight with cumin, oregano, paprika, lime, onions and chilies.

Tacos vary from stand to stand and from region to region, so don’t except the same old taco everywhere you go. Here is a list of some of the most popular tacos to help you when you just want “uno mas, por favor.” Which one will you start with?

The most popular tacos among popular Mexican food.
  • Asador – These tacos are made of meat cooked on a griddle, like carne asada.
  • Cazo – Tacos are stuffed with fillings made in a traditional Mexican copper pot. The pot is deep and good for making carnitas or fried pork.
  • Cazuela – These tacos contain stewed meat made in a traditional Mexican clay cookware called a cazuela.
  • Fish tacos – Fish tacos come from Baja California and are made from fresh fish from the Pacific Ocean or Sea of Cortez. The fish can either be fried or grilled.
  • Shrimp tacos – These tortillas are filled with cooked shrimp and are topped with cabbage and lime.
  • Al pastor or adobada – For this taco, meat is cooked on a vertical rotisserie and was adopted after Lebanese immigrants moved to Mexico. The taco is an adaptation of shawarma.
  • Tacos al carbon – These tacos are made from meat that is cooked over charcoal, creating a wonderfully deep, smoky flavor.
  • Bug tacos – Don’t cringe jut yet! Bugs offer a great source of very lean protein. Some of the most well-known bug tacos are made from gusanos (maguey worms), jumiles (stink bugs), chicatanas (giant winged ants), escamoles (ant larvae), ahuatle (water-fly eggs), chapulines (grasshoppers), and escarabajos (beetles). Any idea which one you want to order?
  • Vegetarian – Vegetarian tacos are usually made of pinto beans, garbanzo beans, rice, and/or roasted chili slices.
  • Breakfast – Breakfast tacos are made with scrambled eggs, chorizo, or potato.

3 – Tamales

Let’s continue this Guide to Popular Mexican Food talking about Tamales. Tamales can be traced back to the Maya and were enjoyed long before the invasion of the Spanish. They were the first street food before there were even streets. Tamales were a staple during Mayan holidays and celebrations. You can even see tamales depicted in ancient Mayan glyphs and other artifacts. They are made with corn flour and are generally filled with chicken, pork, vegetables, and or cheese. They are then wrapped in cornhusks or banana leaves and steamed. Tamales are unwrapped and eaten with a variety of salsas. You can even find tamales that are filled with fruit, like strawberries, or other sweet fillings.

Spanish Immersion tamales Mexico

4 – Chilaquiles

Chilaquiles, besides being a fun word to say, are one of the best breakfast dishes in Mexican cuisine and popular Mexican food. To make chilaquiles you need to cut up tortillas in either strips or triangles and fry them until they are crispy (somewhat like nacho chips). They are served with either a red or green salsa and you can add a fried egg or shredded chicken to the top. Make sure you add some queso fresco (or fresh Mexican cheese and beans. Many Mexicans make this dish not only because it is absolutely delicious but also because it’s a great way to use up old tortillas.

Tastefull Mexican Nachos

5 – Enchiladas

Enchiladas are made with soft corn tortillas that are stuffed with anything from chicken to vegetables. Then, they are either rolled or folded and baked in a red or green sauce and topped with cheese and onion. The verb, “enchilar” means to cover in chili, so if you love a spicy meal, make sure to order enchiladas!

6 – Poc-Chuc

Poc-chuc is a dish that originates with the Maya that can be found all over the Yucatán Peninsula. In the Maya language, “poc” means to toast and “chuc” translates to charcoal, which describes the cooking method for this dish.

It’s likely that this dish came about in Yucatán villages, where farmers cured the meat in salt water to preserve it, and then added the acidic flavors to hide the saltiness. There is much debate surrounding the exact origin of this dish because many of the ingredients arrived after the Spanish and did not exist in the Mayan times.

Mexican food corn

Today, poc-chuc is made with marinated pork, served with rice, refried black beans, sliced avocado, and often pickled onion, cabbage, and a spicy salsa made from habanero. Cooks marinate or coat the pork in a mixture of spices including lots of salt, oregano, coriander, thyme, pepper, and garlic. It is then coated in the juice of sour oranges, sometimes mixed with achiote paste (sometimes known as annatto), for a bitter taste. They then cook the meat over charcoal. Locals also tend to eat it with fresh tortillas, a perfect vessel for all the unique flavors, according to our Guide to Popular Mexican Food.

7 – Tortas

If you are looking for a filling bite to eat on the go, choose a typical Mexican torta. Tortas are sandwiches served on oval buns called bolillos that are similar to baquettes or paninos. The most common fillings include ham, chicken, and milanesa (a breaded cutlet) and vegetables like lettuce, tomato, and avocado. It’s very common to find these sandwiches at local markets, at street food vendors or trucks and are a popular lunch item for people in a rush!

8 – Pozole

Pozole is a stew made with large hominy kernels. The dish is popular to serve on the Mexican Independence Day and at Christmas. There are three main types of pozole that generally all include pork, garlic and hominy, but there are several versions that use chicken. Add-ons include shredded lettuce, diced onion, hot sauce, thinly sliced radish, lime and avocado.

Red (rojo) pozole relies heavily on chilies such as guajillo, ancho or piquin. Green pozole includes cilantro, tomatillos and jalapeños while the white pozole does not include any red or green sauces. While each region has their own specialty, the pozole is completely pre-Hispanic in origin. There are many accounts from the Spanish conquistadors where they referenced the soup.

Not so fun fact: The dish was once considered sacred due to the large kernels combined with meat. A gruesome tale goes that the soup was originally made with human flesh from sacrificed prisoners. They say that later, the dish was replaced with pork meat, due to its similarity, but don’t let that thought come across your mind as the soup sits in front of you. Other sources say that the meat from Mexican dogs, xoloitzcuintles, was used. Not sure if that’s better or worse, but happily you don’t have to choose between those two options nowadays.

9 – Sopes

These “Mexican corn cakes,” about the size of a fist, are made from a very fine corn flour. The tortillas are made thick and are pinched all the way around to raise the sides and create a bowl-like shape. Sope is soft and thick with a fried exterior. The bowl shape helps hold all of the scrumptious delicacies inside. Sopes can literally be made with any type of filling including chicken, beef, pork or seafood. Toppings include re-fried beans, cheese, tomato, and salsa. They are generally eaten as a snack or as a starter to a meal.

10 – Elote

Do you love corn on the cob? Well take this love to a whole new level with elote, the traditional Mexican street corn. Elote is boiled or grilled corn, served smothered in butter, mayonnaise, cotija cheese, chili powder and sometimes lime. The final product is then served on a stick, providing an easy solution for mobile consumption.

There is another popular Mexican treet food that is quite similar which is called, esquites. Instead of being served on the cob, the corn kernels are removed and prepared with chicken stock and epazote, a Mexican herb. The corn is then served in a cup with the same toppings that accompany elote. So if you are looking to avoid the dental floss and mess, maybe the esquites are for you! But, we highly recommend trying both.

Popular Mexican food items

Guide to Popular Mexican Food

11 – Mole

How to prepare the best Mexican mole:

  1. Toast or fry the ingredients. Toasting the chilies, nuts, seeds, and spices on a dry comal (clay griddle) or frying them in lard or vegetable oil helps bring out the flavors. Most recipes use a combination of toasting and frying in lard.
  2. Blend the ingredients. Traditionally, you grind the toasted ingredients into a powder before simmering them with water in a cazuela (clay cooking pot), but many mole recipes now call for blending. Quickly blend the toasted and fried ingredients into a puree with water or vegetable or chicken broth.
  3. Simmer the sauce. Once you’ve blended the sauce, cook it on the stovetop until the flavors come together.
  4. Age the mole a day or two. Once the mole has simmered for about half an hour, it’s ready to eat, but many cooks swear that mole tastes best the second or third day after the flavors have had time to meld and mingle.
    Enjoy your mole, one of the most popular Mexican food.

There are many more types of mole in Mexico than people may realize. The many varieties are loved all up and down the entire country. The sauce can come in yellow, red, black and green. As a general rule mole contains some sort of nut, fruit and chili.

The origins of mole are debated but we know that the world mole comes from the pre-Colombian Nahuatl word for sauce – molli. One story alleges that a convent in Puebla created the dish in a panic with whatever ingredients they had because of the impending visit of an archbishop. Other stories go that certain spices got mixed up and mole was born. Other stories date back to Mesoamerica. We hope you like mysteries because we will probably never know the true origins of mole.

The region of Puebla has one of the most famous moles, which is classified as an official national dish. Mole Poblano has a long list of ingredients including chocolate, chilies, nuts and spices. To make mole from scratch you must roast and grind them before combining them with stock to form the paste. The sauce is cooked over a low heat with additional ingredients added until it reaches the desired consistency. The sauce is rich, earthy, spicy and semisweet that can be made with 20-30 different ingredients.

Mole can be served with meat alongside rice and leftover mole can be used as a filling for tamales or as an alternative topping for enchiladas. A common dish is a chicken leg served with rice, radishes, a lake of mole poblano, sprinkled with sesame seeds. Tortillas are used to soak up all the extra sauce.

12 – Guide to Popular Mexican Food: Mexican Salsa

Mexican salsa encompasses so much more than just the jar of red salsa you get from the grocery store. Here are some of the most common salsas and their characteristics.

Popular Mexican salsas:
  • Salsa roja – Named “red sauce” for the deep red color from the tomato base. It includes cooked chili peppers. These salsas can sometimes be smoky and hot.
  • Avocado salsa – This type of salsa is made with an avocado base. It is not to be confused with guacamole. It’s thinner because of the liquid from the lime and white vinegar.
  • Pico de gallo – Named “peak of the rooster.” It is a mixture of tomato, onion, jalapeño, cilantro, and lime. This type of salsa is not cooked but raw.
  • Salsa negra – Named “black sauce” because of the color from the roasted dried chilies, oil, and garlic.
  • Salsa verde – Named “green sauce” because of the color from the tomatillos. Cooked tomatillos blended with herbs, garlic, and onion.

13 – Avocado and Guacamole

Avocado originated in southern Mexico and is loved for its creamy, rich texture. The Maya, and other indigenous groups from Mesoamerica, who were provided with nutrient-dense sustenance, treasured the fruit. They also believed that the fruit possessed mythical powers such as strength and fertility and the 14th month of the Mayan calendar (K’ank’in) is represented by the glyph of an avocado.

When you combine avocado with chilies, garlic, cilantro, onions, salt and lime you create another famous Mexican side called guacamole.

14 – Mexican Chilies

According to our Guide to Popular Mexican Food, there are 150 varieties of chilies available across Mexico, so if you can’t get enough spicy food, Mexico should be the 1st place on your bucket list. There are thousands of ways to prepare these chilies each with their own unique flavor profile ranging from sweet, spicy, earthy, and fruity to smoky. Each type of chili is hand selected to add the correct level of heat and flavor to a dish.

Mexican Chilies

Popular Mexican chilies (Guide to Popular Mexican Food):
  • Ancho chilies: Ancho chili peppers are the dried version of poblano chilies that achieve a deep red color when fully ripened. Ancho chilies vary in spiciness, but they are generally mild to medium and have a light smoky, sweet or fruity flavor perfect to make mole.
  • Mulato chilies: Like ancho chilies, mulato chilies are dried poblano peppers, but they’re harvested at a later date when the peppers have ripened to a brownish color. When dried, they’re black, wrinkly, and flat. They have a mild spice accompanied by a smoky, sweet, chocolate-like flavor.
  • Pasilla chiles: Pasillas are dried chilaca chilies. Pasilla translates to “little raisins.” True to their name, these peppers have a dark wrinkly skin, a deeply sweet dried-fruit flavor, and a heat that isn’t overpowering. These peppers are perfect to pair with meat or fish.
  • Jalapeño: Jalapeños are one of the more versatile Mexican chilies that account for around 30% of Mexico’s chili production. They can be pickled, stuffed, fried, smoked and even jellied. Try one of the lightly charred jalapeños that are served as a tasty street taco side. The spice rating is ranked at a nice medium.
  • Chipotle chilies: The dried form of the jalapeño pepper, chipotle chilies are spicier than most of the other dried chilies on this list. It’s picked at the very end of the ripening process and then placed in a wood-fire box for several days, turning the fresh, green jalapeño into a dark red, shriveled chipotle chili.
  • Guajillo chilies: Guajillo chilies are the dried version of the mirasol chili—large thin chilies that have bright red skin and a mild kick, with some natural sweetness and a touch of earthy flavor. They are a little hotter than ancho, mulato, and pasilla chilies, but less hot than chipotles. These chilies are used to make sweet sauces or meat marinades that go well with tamales, pambozos (fried bread) and mole.
  • Habañero: Habañeros sure are cute, tiny and beautiful but they pack one of the greatest punches out of all the Mexican chilies. They are actually rated 100,000-350,000 on the Scoville scale and were named one of the world’s hottest by the Guinness World Records in 2009. They are commonly used for fiery-hot salsas and are very common on the Yucatán Peninsula.
  • Serrano: The Serrano pepper is often mistaken for the jalapeño due to its green color. They can vary quite significantly in their spice level depending on how they are cooked and how early they are picked. The pepper can actually turn yellow, red, brown or orange if left to over-ripen. Overall they are said to have a comfortable medium overall kick. You can often find these peppers in salsas or served as a pickled garnish.

Don’t let this limited list stop you in learning more about all the varieties of chilies Mexico has to offer!

We hope we have inspired you to taste your way through Mexico with our Guide to Popular Mexican Food. The best way to get a sense of authentic Mexican recipes would be to learn Spanish in Mexico while staying with a Mexican family who can prepare some of their ancestral meals for you.

Remember to be adventurous and try as much as you can while you are there because eating the local Mexican food is one of the most authentic ways to learn about this extraordinarily rich and diverse country.


Interested in learning more about Mexico’s culture and gastronomy?

Read more about Latin American food:

Streetfood in Latin America

Mexican drinks

Read more about Mexican culture:

The Day of the Death in Mexico

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